Praying Mantis; Mantis religiosa

mantis copyArticle and Photos by Steve Miller

The praying mantis’ looks are deceiving.  It moves about slowly, almost reverently.  It appears to kneel in prayer, lifting its front legs much like human arms, folding its “hands” in prayer.  It’s the only bug on the planet that can swivel its head from side to side in a human like motion, slowly and deliberately.  As I photographed this “gentle” creature, I was amazed at the mannerisms that reminded me of a gentle Buddhist monk.

Despite their appearance and behavior, they’re anything but gentle.  Watching a mantis in close proximity to a cricket gave me insight into the vicious nature of this insect. Once it became aware of the cricket, the mantis stood on a limb completely still. With the exception of its head moving, looking, assessing the surroundings, it was motionless.  Meanwhile, the cricket wandered aimlessly throughout the area, oblivious to the looming threat.  The mantis just waited patiently for the cricket to come close enough and BLAM!  It pounced at lightning speed.  Mantis are not hunters.  They let the prey come to them.

Barbs on the mantis’ “hands” that were so reverently folded in prayer only seconds ago now dug firmly into the cricket’s flesh.  Although its panicked attempts to escape the mantis’ grip were feverishly desperate, they were also futile.  Showing no mercy, the mantis proceeded to eat the cricket alive.

If the cricket had been another mantis, it would still not have received any professional courtesy.  The mantis is cannibalistic.  Even the stronger and bigger female mantis has a reputation for eating her former mate.  With a ravenous appetite from the moment that it hatches, the mantis has been known to dine on its own siblings if it can’t find other food.  If I were to name this bug, I would call it Mantis vacuus misericordia, which in Latin means, “Mantis without mercy”.

With no other weapon at its disposal, the mantis will eject a dark, foul-smelling liquid to disable its prey.  When threatened, it may rise on its hind legs and use its wings to rattle or hiss.

Anatomy

About are a few different varieties of praying mantis native to the Sonoran desert.   They are biological cousins to grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches, and walking sticks. Like any other insect, they are divided into three sections, the head, thorax, abdomen, and exoskeleton. It comes factory equipped with two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs.

mantis 2

One of the things that make it unique in appearance is the triangular-shaped head and large compound eyes.  Compound eyes have several lenses that can sense movement.  One area that nature skipped in providing redundancy to the mantis in the ear – it only has one.  It uses this ear to alert it to the presence of its worst enemy, the bat.  It has a long, flexible giraffe-like neck that allows it to swivel it head.

Another behavior that gives the mantis a humanlike appearance is that it walks on its four back legs and used the two front ones as arms.

Cycle of Life

The lifespan of a praying mantis starts in the spring and ends in the fall.  It starts out as one of many in an egg sac.  It emerges looking like a miniature version of an adult mantis except that it doesn’t have wings.  Molting several times before reaching adulthood, the first order of business as a grownup mantis is to seek a mate.

I don’t know if the male is aware that his female partner will try to make him the main course for dinner after he’s fathered her children.  Perhaps if he was aware, the mantis population would quickly dwindle because the male wouldn’t be willing to take the risk in order to procreate the species.  Judging from the courtship ritual, which includes dancing and gentle stroking of the antennae, the male is unaware of his likely fate.  Both bugs continue on with the ritual which eventually ends with them engaging in “the big nasty”.  With a lot of skill and a little luck, the male may just get away.  It doesn’t matter though – they will both die of old age in a matter of days or weeks.

Regardless of the outcome for the male, the female, having got what she wanted, starts to build an elaborate nursery identical to the one she herself hatched from only a few months prior.  It is the single most important act of her life.  She will die within a couple of weeks.  Ce la vie.

Mythology

The mantis, because of its unique appearance and behavior, is also the subject of historical myths.  It is said to have directed the Islamic pilgrims to Mecca.  As a god, it helped locate lost sheep and goats in Africa.  The Chinese used is as a cure for bed wetting.  The mantis is pictured in Indian glyphs throughout the Sonoran desert.

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